Each time I speak with my parents, they invariably ask me to give my maternal grandfather a call sometime, and to try to call him regularly. I’m usually hesitant to do so. Despite my very close relationships with my parents and the rest of my family, that with my grandfather has been far less comfortable or mutually respectful. Everyone agrees that he’s a difficult man–stern, close-minded, selfish and controlling, and more and more often demonstrably angry and bitter. Yet all of the family who live still in my home town are afraid to question or cross him; we’ve all been “cut out of the will” at least once or twice for failing to meet his exacting standards or whims, a tactic that fails to impress or affect me, but which seems to terrify the rest of the family, as they seemingly buy into his equation of money and land to love. My mother and aunt crave his regard and praise, yet in their entire lives he’s never once told my mother that he loved her, or my aunt that he was proud of her.
For years, my grandmother worked a full-time job; raised their two children (though admittedly my mother ended up doing a lot of the housework as well as providing much of the care for her sister, twelve years her junior); worked beside my grandfather building fences, planting, cutting and baling hay; and cared for her own mother who moved in with them after suffering a stroke, while still being expected to take care of my grandfather’s exacting needs. Yet now that she needs his support–as over most of the past decade Alzheimer’s has regressed her to the mind and memories of her childhood and an increasing level of physical struggle against her caretakers–he is largely unable or unwilling to step up to the plate. Rather, he demands that my mother, aunt and sister alone care for my grandmother while steadfastly refusing to allow anyone even to suggest that other arrangements might be necessary or provide better quality of life for everyone. It’s not uncommon for him to just leave home for a week or more at a time, often with only a few hours’ notice, to retreat to his hunting cabin in the woods, leaving the rest of the family to handle all the responsibilities at home.
On the other hand, when I was a child and even a young adult, he most often seemed very proud, loving and giving. He doted on my sister and me when we were children, as he does on his great-grandchidren now, more or less: he has a very special relationship with one of my nephews who shares his love of hunting and fishing, but is less involved with or supportive of the other two nephews, who have different interests or who are challenging in other ways, as with my youngest nephew, whose speech impediment frustrates my grandfather who, with his own diminution of hearing, is unable to communicate successfully with him. And my parents tell me that he asks about me every day, part of a growing preoccupation with matters of family and mortality.
Our conversations often are stilted: we share little in common, and my life is a mystery to him. When we do speak on the phone, our conversations are formulaic and safe: we speak of the weather, he makes a political joke, I ask about his health, he asks about my car and when I’m coming home to visit. My phone call to him this past Saturday followed that pattern, though I have to admit that it felt different to me this time, as though he and I were relatively at peace with each other. I didn’t hear–or elected not to hear–value judgments or criticisms, and in turn I didn’t hurry to end the conversation, but let him drive the amount of time we remained, to the degree possible, connected. Every activity, for him, seems now to be colored by the question, perhaps unspoken by him though occasionally voiced to me by others in the family, of whether this will be the last time: will this be his last trip to the beach? his last summer baling hay? our last phone call?
And while I can never forget the pain he’s often caused my mother, especially, and the rest of my family, nor can I summon up an unquestioned respect for someone who has been capable of such cruelty and unconsidered stubbornness, I can–and do–forgive him, just as I must learn to forgive myself for such of these behaviors and patterns of thought as I discover mirrored within me.